Academic journal article ARIEL

Imagining the Canadian Agrarian Landscape: Prairie Settler Life Writing as Colonial Discourse

Academic journal article ARIEL

Imagining the Canadian Agrarian Landscape: Prairie Settler Life Writing as Colonial Discourse

Article excerpt

Abstract: This essay discusses the power of settler life writing to replace Indigenous conceptions of the prairies with colonial visions in southern Alberta. Pioneer memoirs promote myths of the prairie as a fertile utopian environment or a hostile frontier. Both myths are founded on the georgic mode, which Virgil established circa 34 BCE and which emerges in English literature that emphasizes land and labour. By accentuating their social status and the labour they have performed to improve their ranches and farms, pioneer life writers support their claims of entitlement to colonize land.

Keywords: prairie settlers, settler narratives, settlement myths, frontier, agrarian utopia

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To mark the "golden, silver, and diamond jubilees" in Alberta, many pioneers celebrated the success of their homesteading projects by writing their personal histories (Dempsey, "Local" 171). These memoirs include Georgina Thomson's Crocus and Meadowlark Country: Recollections of a Happy Childhood and Youth on a Homestead in Southern Alberta-, Joan Key's The Third Radfords: A Pioneer Adventure-, Monica Hopkins' Letters From a Lady Rancher, and Herbert (Bert) Sheppard's Spitzee Days and fust About Nothing. These texts contribute to a body of work that supports settlers' claims of entitlement to colonized land. Along with these, I also explore a set of diaries composed during the settlement period: the account book diaries of Henry Norman Sheppard, Sr. and the farm logs of two of his sons, Henry Fleetwood Sheppard, Jr. and Bert Sheppard, which cumulatively provide unrevised accounts of the family's ranching experiences between 1907 and 1953. Finally, I examine the letters of Claude Gardiner, written between 1894 and 1896 and published as Letters From an English Rancher. Regardless of their form, these texts represent their authors' daily lives; however, the diaries and letters were written within hours or days of the authors' experiences and convey ideologies prevalent at the time, while the memoirs reflect ideologies of the 1960s and 1970s. Moreover, in recalling their settlement experiences several decades later, the memoirists imbue their accounts with aesthetic and literary dimensions and give meaning to their experiences. As a result, Key, Hopkins, and Thomson promote myths of the prairie as an agrarian utopia, while Bert Sheppard disseminates myths of the prairie as a frontier. Both utopian and frontier myths justify the authors' sense of entitlement to colonized land.

In the frontier myth, entitlement is a pioneer's reward for overcoming the challenges he or she faced in settling in a rugged and even hostile environment. Thus, Bert Sheppard writes about his success with emphasis on the labour he and his family members performed to carve out their lives on the frontier. In the utopian myth, entitlement is bestowed on refined Anglo-Canadian settlers who established lives of plenitude, prosperity, and gentility. To imply a sense of entitlement, Hopkins and Key frequently accentuate their social status. Key and Thomson, who both arrived in Alberta as children, narrativize their experiences as progressing toward a utopian horizon and, imagining they achieved a state of gracious living at some point in their respective pasts, conclude their memoirs with a nostalgic yearning for those golden years. Frontier and utopian themes often blend or shift in predominance within one text. At times, the memoirists portray their successes as triumphs over adversity by exaggerating the dangers and adding suspense to their narratives, pretending they cannot foresee the outcome of potentially tragic situations regardless of the fact that they have lived through the events they depict. At other times, they emphasize plenitude by embellishing their narratives with flowery descriptions of the environment that surrounded their farms or ranches. Often, especially when they fail to cultivate a genteel mode of existence on the prairies, they humorously describe their foibles to downplay their ineptitude and their discomforts. …

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